WASHINGTON – A U.S. judge dismissed a lawsuit against U.S. officials by Guatemalans who had been subjected to sexually transmitted diseases by U.S. researchers in the 1940s.
The suit, on behalf of the victims and their heirs, came after revelations that Guatemalan prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and orphans had been deliberately infected without their consent. The researchers were studying the effects of penicillin, then a relatively new drug.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton acknowledged that the study was a "deeply troubling chapter in our nation's history." But he ruled that federal law bars claims against the U.S. based on injuries suffered in a foreign country and granted a motion by the U.S. government to dismiss the suit.
Walton also dismissed constitutional claims made against several current U.S. officials, including Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. He said that such claims must be against a federal official who was personally involved in the illegal conduct, and none of the U.S. officials sued had been.
Guatemalan officials said last year that they have found 2,082 people were involved in the experiments to infect subjects with syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. U.S. officials put the figure at 1,308 subjects.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sebelius all have apologized for the research, hidden for decades until a Wellesley College medical historian uncovered the records in 2009. Attorneys representing the Guatemalans first asked the Obama administration to set up an out-of-court claims process similar to those established in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the 9/11 terror attacks, but they got no response and filed the suit.
Among the goals of the 1940s research, funded by the predecessor of the National Institutes of Health, was to see how well differing dosages of penicillin worked against different venereal diseases.
Walton said that the plaintiff's pleas "are more appropriately directed to the political branches of our government, who, if they choose, have the ability to grant some modicum of relief to those affected by the Guatemala study."